12/31/2012 07:46 am ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

The Most Important Question for 2013

The question can literally turn your stress into valuable moments of life transformation.

Imagine you experience the worst of war. How do you ever sleep at night? Imagine you are a woman living in your car; you have two little ones in the back seat. How do you not go crazy with worry? You are a normal person with all the stresses of work, family, and a 24/7 interconnected world. How do you keep from getting overwhelmed?

In each case, the level of stress we deal with on a daily basis ranges from irritating to entirely debilitating. But it turns out, even in the worst circumstances, we don't have to lose our minds.

Dr. Julian Ford is a traumatic stress researcher I had the privilege of writing with for the last few years. He has spent his career exploring the brain in the worst situations, researching how we can recover from life's disasters. Just some of the people he offers peace of mind and healing to include veterans, women in poverty, and teenagers in the juvenile justice system -- men, women, and children who suffer the worst horrors.

He has discovered the question that, if you are willing to ask it regularly each day, can change your life this year. The holy grail of personal control and stress management is:

What is most important to me right now?

It turns out when you understand the brain and what it's trying to help you do each moment, it is the essential assessment we need each day, sometimes each hour or even minute, to focus on the life we want to live.

Here's how it works. You're stressed. Could be a screaming child, a deadline, or a major life change. In the worst of cases, maybe you've experienced trauma yourself and you can't seem to shake the memories.

First, step back. When you choose to pause when you feel stress, the alarm in your brain connects with the part of your brain that keeps you in control, your thinking center.[1]

Whether you slow down with a few deep breaths or repeat a favorite mantra or meditation, you've just prepared yourself to ask the question that can change your life. Just asking, "What's most important to me right now?" might seem too simple.

Not if you use it. Using the question in two ways makes your mind the most powerful resource you have to manage stress. First, figuring out what's most important on a regular basis, when you're not stressed, fills your memory center with the most important thoughts about your life. That primes your brain with answers that turn down your alarm when you begin to feel stress.

The question is also an intervention when stress starts to feel out of control. Your alarm is trying to keep you safe, that's why it fills you with stress chemicals that feel nerve-wracking. Your alarm wants you to stop ignoring what you really care about. Focusing on what's most important ignites the thinking center, which turns down the stress chemicals.

With the screaming child, you probably will feel like screaming, too -- or you can step back and think about why you love your child. You won't love the screaming, but you'll turn your alarm down because it knows there is something more important to you than the screaming.

With the deadline, you will feel overwhelmed. Panic is normal under pressure. Thinking about the reason the work is important to you, even in tense times, however, shows your alarm you have a reason to go through the tough days.

With a life event, like a move, a wedding, or a death, you can't help but feel stressed. The change triggers your alarm; it worries about your future. But in each situation there is something that matters most to you as the change happens. Thinking about the reason or feeling or experience you want more of in your new life is what focuses the brain on what you want now.

And the power of the question is that if your stress doesn't go down, it means you haven't put your finger on what's really most important. Then what? Step back and ask yourself again, "What's most important to me right now?"

We can't stop feeling stressed. What we can do this year is prime our brains so that stress is no longer something to fear, but rather a sign of something we need to pay attention to, and a chance to figure out how we want to spend each precious moment.


[1] Lewis, M. D., & Todd, R. M. (2007). "The self-regulating brain: Cortical-subcortical feedback and the development of intelligent action." Cognitive Development, 22(4), 406-430. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2007.08.004

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